Ambiguity, Belief, Religion and Terror

OK, so today I picked up New Scientist, because I’m interested in gravity, and there was a fairly basic bit on it in there. Nothing very exciting I did not know as it turned out, but New Scientist is always worth a read anyway.  There was an article on how engineers form a disproportionate number of rightist and Islamic terrorists – well I hardly thought this was news, the only profile I ever saw for a religious terror suspect a few years back in a book on terrorism said exactly the same thing as this new research. Disaffected intelligent and well educated people tend to blow things up? No surprise there! I could have told you that… Anyway, I’m not planning to blow anything up, but I strongly suspect that massive social injustice, lack of opportunity and economic disempowerment, poverty to the point where you have no choices left to make at all, but just survive, lead to terrorism. No that is not a confession. 🙂

Seriously though, if you face serious injustice, serious lack of ability to do anything much with your life and yet see people enjoying vastly superior lifestyles, you might get annoyed – especially if your kids are dying, or you lack basic clean water while others jet ski and bask on beaches? I think the root of terrorism is human nature and anger at injustice. That’s not to say it always is – we get ideologically driven super-rich terrorists, and political types, and I expect religious ones – but it does strike me that Westerners often fail to reflect on atrocities, massacres and injustices that create militants. I’m guessing it’s easier to be complacent and not want to kill anyone if you are comfortable, not hungry, and your friends are not the victims of genocide. Frustration, resentment, poverty – coupled with intelligence and technology, and you have the capacity for people to lash out in frighteningly destructive ways. Not a legitimate form of protest now, but people in pain react irrationally… Want to beat terrorism? Provide educational, social and economic justice maybe?

Anyhow, while the actual article was not exciting — it is well written, the research well formulated, but hardly going to help profile future terrorists especially given that leftists ones aren’t engineers anyway, so it’s a bit limited in that way, the Editorial interested me more, and brought my thoughts back to something I planned to write on anyway.  The Editorial suggests some engineers may dislike ambiguity, and want a clockwork well ordered world, and lash out when it is not so, adopting terrorist tactics. The key bit here to me is “dislike ambiguity”, because as long term readers of my writings on the JREF and Dawkins forum will know, that si exactly the trait I noted in many “New Atheists” and sceptics. One can not generalize – I know a good few New Atheists with a great appreciation and understanding of ambiguity, and there is one literary critic on the Dawkins forum who could certainly teach me a thing or two about the notion – I did read Seven Types of Ambiguity, but that was many, many years ago.   However the very literalist/concrete reading and failure to understand the symbolic nature of religious language one comes across on both forums, coupled with a dislike of mystery and the unexplained – well except as a research challenge, an attitude I heartily share – made me propose that actually people with strong ideological beliefs may simply be less able to process or deal with “insufficient data” or ambiguous concepts. “woo” sometimes seems to be any mysterious or hard to explain concept that threatens an ordered mechanistic worldview. Wonder hwo they deal with gambling, chance and fate? Denying Free Will and embracing materialist determism is one way I guess. 🙂

I actually have been trying to get a research methodology together for this – my divorce from the University of Gloucestershire, an institution with which I have no connection at all now – makes it harder, and the very notion of ambiguity appears to have been ignored in the psychology journals. I was willing to self fund, but the person I hoped to collaborate with on my research in to belief  structures and ambiguity has vanished, or is not returning my calls, so I guess I’m going to have to pursue this alone.I don’t want to do a PhD on it – just an exploratory paper. 🙂  I’m not interested in finding terrorists – I actually think it has no useful potential there for reasons outlined in New Scientist – but I am sure as hell interested in what makes people adopt their religious worldview, or active anti-religious worldview. Sure i can see where Dawkins is coming from – he sees Natural Selection, a beautiful and useful idea, as invalidating religious thinking. No, it invalidates forms of Latitudinarian natural theology common in the 18th century — if most religious believers think like Paley or Newton, I have yet to notice it!

Still, I’m interested in the relationship between ability to cope with ambiguity, new ideas and the authoritarian personality. I might try and retrieve Male Fantasies: Women, Flood, Bodies, History from DC, a classic study of Nazi masculinity and psychology. I always wondered if it influenced Andrew (definitely NOT a Nazi) Eldritch when he wrote the Sisters of Mercy album Floodland – he reads widely and is extremely intelligent and articulate, and it would not surprise me at all.  IF I had access to a JSTOR, Athens or other journal database i’d search for the literature on ambiguity – as I may have hinted, I know it mainly from Lit. Crit (which I only really dabble in) but the concept strikes me as extremely important.  Or maybe I’m just pleased because someone at New Scientist is clearly thinking along the same lines that I have been arguing?

All this really shows that I should actually get on with applying to MacDonalds for a job, and that I think too much, but hey, there must be a way of devising a scale that deals with how people deal with this process of ambiguity. It’s a bit outside of my usual parapsychological interests, but all the same I think it really could bode well for research,a nd my reading from Lacan to Eysenck has never really turned up anything on this issue. Attachment Theory does not say much about it, but the old concept of “fuzzy boundaries” we used to use in psychiatric nursing may well impact here. Hrmmm, maybe I should ask Ian Hume – maybe the concept is already well explored?

Anyway I have whittered on enough for one day. Hope everyone well, and I’ll return to moaning about my life in my next post I expect! Still if anyone fancies helping devise a decent experimental exploration of the concept of ambiguity in self perceptions of belief, do drop me a line…

all the best

cj x


About Chris Jensen Romer

I am a profoundly dull, tedious and irritable individual. I have no friends apart from two equally ill mannered cats, and a lunatic kitten. I am a ghosthunter by profession, and professional cat herder. I write stuff and do TV things and play games. It's better than being real I find.
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3 Responses to Ambiguity, Belief, Religion and Terror

  1. Wendy C says:

    AHA! Glad you’re not letting the general bastardlyness of life grind you down and continue to kick against the pricks (copyright Saul-of-Tarsus) but speaking of Ambiguity, Belief, Religion and Terror have a look at what’s going on now in Iran. It’s all fairly quiet on the the TV newschannels but tonight there’s a revolution on Twitter and #iranelection is alive….

  2. Chris Jensen Romer says:

    I’m watching it closely, with anxiety. I was ten in the year of the Iranian Revolution, which I recall as a mass people protest, with cadres of students at the forefront. Now I think it’s the same student/middle class base protesting in the streets. Unfortunately I recall all too well how many protests like this have ended in atrocity and terror… Iran has an amazing history, and has given the world a huge amount, though my knowledge is mainly of medieval Persia — I studies Islam at university, and later lectured in it– but hey, it puts my occasional moans in to perspective.

    cj x

  3. beastrabban says:

    Interesting post on the background of Islamist and Fascist terrorists in engineering. The suggestion that the people drawn to such extreme ideologies are those who dislike ambiguity might be corroborated, at least in the context of radical Islam, by Bassam Tibi’s observations on the psychological background of Islamic Fundamentalism in Egypt. In his Islam and the Cultural Accommodation of Social Change , (Boulder, Westview Press 1991), Tibi states that the majority of the members of Egyptian Islamic Fundamentalist group are from the socially conservative, Egyptian countryside. When these people migrate to the great cities like Cairo and Alexandria, they find their new environment and its vastly different social relationships and mores extremely confusing and disorientating. They experience it as a moral chaos, and attempt to impose order on this new experience by adopting an ideology that stresses a return to a simpler, more comprehensible order of traditional Islam, at least as expressed and articulated by that ideology. Tibi interviewed a number of young Muslim radicals held in Egyptian jails, and found that their knowledge of Islam was extremely simple.

    I think that the mindset behind those joining European and American Fascist groups is probably similar, in that it’s partly a reaction to a perceived threat to traditional society and the social order, and a similar attempt to re-establish that order against new, chaotic social relationships brought about by modernisation.

    On the other hand, it’s also true that the sociology of extremist groups has probably also changed over time, and is probably also strongly influenced by the expansion of certain parts of the education sector due to industrialisation. For example, in the case of radical Islam, it might be that the reason most of its members are engineers is because the various Islamic nations may have made technical education a priority in order to expand and develop their countries’ industrial base. So it may not necessarily be that engineers as a whole are more inclined towards radical Islam and simplistic political ideologies, but simply that there are more engineering students that perhaps those on other course.

    The sociological background of members of radical Islamist and Fascist groups can be contrasted with those of the members of radical Left-wing groups. In 19th century Europe, and particularly Germany, the members of radical Left-wing organisations tended to be doctors through the influence of German medical materialism, which viewed the body as a machine, and which could therefore be viewed as supporting radical Left-wing political ideologies that also claimed a basis in atheism and materialism, such as those of the French revolution and Marxism and Anarchism. I also suspect that doctors were particularly attracted to left-wing radicalism as they were the part of the intellectual society that would have most contact with the poor and their suffering, while other professional groups, such as engineers, scientists and architects, while obviously in contact with the labouring population, wouldn’t have been so closely involved in their personal problems.

    In the 20th century, the stereotype of those with radical left-wing beliefs was that they were either students of sociology, literary studies or philosophy. In the case of sociology and philosophy, it’s because of the strong influence of Marxism on sociology, and its claim to have discovered the sociological basis of the development of feudal, capitalist and then socialist society, while also being a development of Hegelian philosophy as well as a philosophy in its own right. Literary Studies, like Postmodernism, took over Marxist political analysis, along with influences from philosophy. It’s also been the case that a number of extremely prominent historians have been Marxists, because of the influence on that discipline through Marxist historiography. So, there would seem to be a difference between the membership of extreme Rightwing and Islamist groups, based in engineering, and extreme Left-wing groups, based in sociology, history, philosophy and cultural studies.

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